Book note: Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal

The late William Hutchison, who died in 2005, was for decades years a professor at Harvard and one of the truly top experts on American religious history, especially liberal religion. His final book was Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal. Hutchinson’s book is highly relevant–it appears at a time when the narrative of American history is being rewritten once again, as we move from a paradigm of unity and Protestant hegemony to one of contestation and pluralism. Despite coming of age under a very different paradigm, Hutchinson shows sensitivity and insight in his handling of the issues surrounding pluralism. In particular, he makes the valuable distinction between diversity and pluralism, especially in the religious milieu. These two terms are often used interchangeably in academic writing (to say nothing of the popular media), yet Hutchinson convincingly argues for treating them as separate categories.

In Hutchinson’s usage, diversity is a situation with multiple types–thus religious diversity is found in a mixed group of, say, Catholics, Jews, and Hindus. Diversity describes a fact, and is the situation that has existed in some form in America from the beginning (whether one dates that beginning to the coming of the Native Americans, the founding of European colonies, or the Declaration of Independence). Pluralism, on the other hand, is used to denote ideas relating to diversity. In one form or another, it indicates the acceptance of diversity; pluralism describes an attitude, or even a theology (Unitarian-Universalism, for instance, may be characterized as the cult of pluralism–note that “cult” is used here in the academic sense, not as a pejorative).

Hutchinson’s book is primarily concerned with charting the rise of pluralism in the religious realm as an ideal in American society. In his investigation, he discerns three general phases that the concept has gone through. This first is pluralism as tolerance. The primary attitude in the years before the late 19th century, this phase was characterized by a general willingness by most to allow religious out-groups to enter and settle in America, even in one’s own town. But this type of pluralism did not imply interest in other groups, and was of limited tolerance in many cases. Most significant in determining who was resisted and who was left alone was the behavior, not the theology, of out-groups–one could hold outre views but wouldn’t be molested if one acted with propriety, but unacceptable behavior, whether it be emotional religious enthusiasm or bigamy based on divine revelation, was likely to receive a backlash.

The second phase Hutchinson describes lasted roughly until the 1960s, and was characterized by a sense of pluralism as inclusive. This pluralistic view allowed for the acceptance of other groups as having a right to some participation in American culture and having some legitimate relation to one’s group. Thus Protestants might not agree with Catholics on all matters, but they could see ways in which they were kindred spirits and fellow Americans. Yet inclusion didn’t mean full power sharing–outsiders were welcome as long as they didn’t expect the same consideration as one’s own group.

The most recent, and still evolving, phase of American religious pluralism is participation. This view expects that others will be able to enjoy the same rights and privileges as oneself, and that sharing can productively occur across religious lines.

Hutchinson implicates diversity as one of the primary forces driving the changes in pluralism. As new groups arrived or arose, they challenged the status quo. Sometimes this resulted in hardliners circling the wagons and resisting fellowship with the newcomers. Yet over the decades increasing diversity–coupled with shrinking territorial expansion and ongoing domestication and pacification of American culture–inevitably fueled the development of truly welcoming pluralisms. By showing how they differ and support one another, Hutchinson has added a valuable element to the ongoing development of diversity and pluralism as lenses through which to examine the history of American religion.



Filed under Book Notes, Defining Liberal Religion, Liberal Religious History

2 responses to “Book note: Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal

  1. Just a note to say that I’m really enjoying your series of essays. I look forward to more.

  2. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I have this book and have read it. I’m a sociology of religion grad student. Religious pluralism is my main interest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s